Net migration figures and international student numbers

As the Government continues to tinker with the UK immigration system in order to bring net migration figures down to the ‘tens of thousands’ as stated in their election manifesto, the debate has centred on whether or not to include international student numbers in migration figures.

The topic hinges on whether international students should be classified as ‘long-term migrants’, i.e. those who enter the UK and remain for a sustained period.

The Government maintain that immigration is hindering the British economy’s road to recovery and, by reducing net migration, unemployment levels will lessen and fewer people will depend on the state.

In line with this aim, the Government has made significant changes to UK visa and immigration policy which have affected international students including introducing salary thresholds for graduates to earn to be allowed to remain in the country, employment restrictions during their studies and abolishing the Post Study Work Visa.

The changes have prompted strong reaction from opposing politicians, independent research bodies and educational establishments. A coalition of vice-chancellors from British universities wrote to David Cameron in protest last month, warning him of the harmful effects the changes could have.

The Government have remained defiant in the face of criticism, claiming the UK immigration changes are beginning to take effect.

"Our tough new rules are now making a real difference with a record 62% drop in student visas in the first quarter of 2012” said Immigration Minister Damian Green.

"As these policies start to bite we are seeing an end to the years when net migration was consistently on the rise. But the hangover from the old system of weak controls means it is still too high and we will continue our programme of reforms to bring net migration down from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands."

The latest immigration figures revealed just a 3,000 decrease in net migration compared to the same period the year before, prompting more scepticism as to whether the changes really are making an effect and whether changing student visa policy can have a tangible effect on UK immigration as a whole.

Why Should Student Numbers Remain in Migration Figures?

Abuse of the system

The Government argue that student numbers should be included in migration figures because a significant proportion of holders overstay their visa requirements and, as people who remain in the country illegally are very difficult to maintain records of, the only way to keep track is to maintain records of them all.

Immigration watchdog MigrationWatch UK agrees with the Government and has urged politicians in recent weeks to continue their vigilance. MigrationWatch’s chairman, Sir Andrew Green, has said student visa was a ‘back door’ to Britain which is being abused.

“Foreign students are valuable but the present system is far too easily abused. Sadly, the student route has become the back door to Britain and it is wide open. Unlike our main competitors, we do not interview students before they come to confirm that they are genuine and there are no checks on their departure,” said Sir Andrew.

Why Should Student Numbers Be Removed in Migration Figures?

Monetary Value

Universities UK, the coalition of vice-chancellors which wrote to David Cameron recently, argue that international students contribute significantly to the British economy, paying fees on average four times higher than domestic students and the Government’s visa restrictions will cost the British economy between £5 and £8 billion a year.


Percentage of Market Shares in International Education by Country of Destination
Source: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2012.

The UK is currently a world leader in the international education market, with only the United States enjoying a greater market share. Universites UK claim dissuading international students from studying in the UK has the potential to harm the country’s international reputation.

The US, Canada and Australia remain the UK’s main competitors in the market yet Britain remains the only one to include student figures in net migration statistics.

Low Abuse Rates

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows that over 75% of international students return home after completing their studies.


Percentage of International Students not Renewing Their Student Visa
and Remaining in the UK
Source: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2012.

Of the 25% who stay, the IPPR claim more will return home after time; the IPPR cites a Home Office report in 2010 which claimed of those foreign students who entered the UK in 2004, just 20% had switched to a different visa route by 2009.

Visa Bureau Comments

The UK Visa Bureau feels the Government’s restrictions do little to combat genuine abuse from those who look to exploit the system by any means.

By adding restrictions to the student visa route and including foreign students in net migration figures, the Government achieves a reduction in immigration figures.

We feel this allows the Government to portray a policy success while actually harming the UK education industry and doing little to tackle genuine abuse of the immigration system.

“With the addition of so many new visa restrictions which affect foreign students, the Government has already limited what they can and can’t do after graduation anyway,” says the UK Visa Bureau’s Casework Department Manager Marissa Murdock.

“By the far the vast majority have no choice but to return home anyway.”

- Dominic Ladden-Powell is Online Editor for the UK Visa Bureau